Town of miracles and tatty souvenirs failed to save Briton’s dying daughter
Like millions who travel to the small pilgrimage town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Irene Kearney believed in miracles.
But her conviction that sprinklings of holy water from the town’s saintly grotto would cure her daughter’s brain tumour came to an end last week when police discovered she had kept her daughter’s corpse hidden in a bedroom for four months, telling her 11-year-old granddaughter simply “don’t go into mummy’s room, she’s tired”.
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The French town was in shock last night at the story of a British woman who so believed in the healing powers of the spot where the Virgin Mary was said to have first appeared to a local girl in 1858 that she moved there permanently to devote herself to prayer.
Irene Kearney, 77, rented a house in Lourdes for five years from 2001. The devout Catholic, who was born in Liverpool to an Irish family, refused all conventional medicine for herself and her 46-year-old daughter Marian. She appeared to have suffered from a form of “Lourdes syndrome”, believing that the mere fact of living in the south-western French town would somehow end the cancer and soothe the pain in her life.
Each year more than 6 million pilgrims come to Catholicism’s most famous shrine at Lourdes, sometimes described as a Disneyland of God for its kitsch tourist shops selling neon Virgin Marys and fastfood shops like the Immaculate Conception ice-cream parlour.
In around 148 years there have been only 66 official miraculous recoveries. The Kearneys were among the 38,000 British people who visit Lourdes each year, greeted by places like the London Pub and English-speaking tourist shops.
Emma attended the local French school from the age of six. But the women spoke no French and couldn’t communicate with neighbours. The family had satellite TV and received parcels of English food.
“Recently some couples in the close complained of a strong smell permeating the street; we thought it was a cat,” said one neighbour, a literature student. She said Irene Kearney still took her granddaughter, now 11, to school in the mornings, collecting her at lunch and taking her back in the afternoon. “She was polite and kept to herself.”
A teacher raised the alarm after the little girl was withdrawn and did not talk about her family as all the other children did after Christmas. When the police arrived at the door Mrs Kearney was relieved the pretence was over.
“I found it strange this year at Christmas when she didn’t give me her traditional box of chocolates, but I thought maybe she was saving money,” said Lucienne, 80, a retired school bursar from Paris who lived next door.
“On the first day of the September school term I saw the sick lady waving goodbye to her daughter out of her bedroom window. I assumed she was still alive until the police came.”
The local state prosecutor Gerard Aldige said Irene Kearney was “a mystic who was convinced a miracle would occur in Lourdes”, and he would bring no charges.
At the local Parish church one volunteer remembered her as “solitary”. She had occasionally attended mass but preferred the Virgin Mary’s grotto and the great basilica at the 52-hectare Sanctuary pilgrimage site.
“There’s a Lourdes syndrome,” sighed the parish priest Father Bernard Saint-Voirin. “A person might think if they come here everything will be easy, the place will somehow look after them and everything will be fixed. But that’s not possible: this is a town like any other.”
At the sanctuary, blanketed in snow, Patrick Theiller sat in his office where a large cross hung over the examination table. As head of the Lourdes medical bureau he investigates the claims of miracle cures made by around 52 people each year. Only a dozen or so cases merit investigation, and like everything at Lourdes, doctors and medical treatment is crucial. Every sick pilgrim on official group tours must be accompanied by a doctor and the shrine is against shunning conventional medicine.
He was shocked by the case. “This is a normal town. There aren’t permanent miracles happening here – that’s a wrong interpretation of the place,” he said. “Not everything is easy here, it’s not magic. The truth is heaven doesn’t exist on earth.”